Season Preview: Carolina Hurricanes
Realignment wasn’t kind to Carolina.
In the South East, they were a club who always had a shot at making the play-offs as the ‘Divisional winner’. A hot streak from Cam Ward, a run of good games or just a bit of consistency could be enough to top a Division composed of a number of faltering franchises.
Now they share space with Pittsburgh, 2014 Stanley Cup finalists New York, a Columbus franchise on the rise and the mercurial Flyers. Only the haphazard Islanders stopped the Canes finishing bottom of the Metropolitan Division last season, and a 10 point gap between Carolina and a post season berth last campaign highlights the task ahead for new coach Bill Peters.
On paper, Carolina has a solid group of forwards led by two Staal brothers, a former 40 goal scorer and a Calder Trophy winner.
On the ice however, the Hurricanes had the fourth worst offence in the East – with team Captain Eric Staal posting the worst season of his NHL career.
Jeff Skinner’s 33 goals are not to be sniffed at, but Alex Semin (22) and Staal (21) were the only other players to reach the 20 goal plateau, while Eric’s brother Jordan, a major acquisition from Pittsburgh in 2012, had just 15 goals and 40 points.
Whilst Jiri Tlusty is a functional NHL forward, and Jay McClement adds useful depth and skill on the PK, Carolina will need more from their stars if they are to even challenge for a play-off spot again, let alone secure one.
The other alternative is that Carolina uses Eric Staal as trade bait, and kicks off a major rebuild. With just two years left on his current deal, Staal is still considered an elite player by many in the game, and for a franchise increasingly linked with relocation, losing his $8.25m per year contract may provide some welcome financial relief.
At The Back
22-year old Justin Faulk seems to be developing in to the Canes cornerstone D man. Signed to a 6-year extension in March (at a total cost of $29m), Faulk made the Team USA roster for the Olympics and impressed on a defence which was surprisingly solid last year.
Andrej Sekera, who finished third in team scoring with 11 goals and 44 points, is entering the final season of his current deal and at 28 has plenty of tread left on the tyres. Depending on how Carolina approaches the season, he could be tied to a longer term deal or used as trade bait later in the year.
Veterans Ron Hainsey and Tim Gleason, who re-joins the franchise as a UFA after a brief spell in Toronto, round out a respectable top 4, which can also call on former Colorado and Toronto puck mover John-Michael Liles, but the loss of Joni Pitkanen remains significant.
Between The Pipes
One of new GM Ron Francis’ toughest decisions came early, after Justin Peters and Anton Khudobin out played incumbent Cam Ward last season.
Peters was allowed to walk as a free agent, but the awkward question over who gets the starting job remains; after Khudobin went 19-14-1 and posted a .926 save percentage versus Ward’s 10-12-6 and .898, as the Saskatoon native struggled to recover from a ‘lower body injury’.
Ward has two years remaining on his current contract, at $6.3m per season. As with Staal, a return to form gives Carolina options – especially as Ward still possess the ability to go on incredible hot streaks from time to time.
Behind The Bench
Former Detroit assistant Bill Peters comes in to replace Kirk Muller.
Peter’s worked with the Wings defence and PK, but in Raleigh he needs to find a way to get a stuttering offence back on track – having inherited a team who seem able to look after their own end, but struggle at the other.
Biggest Addition – Ron Francis
Outgoing GM Jim Rutherford did great things with Carolina – winning a Stanley Cup along the way. But Francis brings fresh eyes to the situation.
The former Whalers, Penguins and Canes centre will need to be bold if he is to turn the franchise fortunes around. In many ways a rebuild might not be a bad thing given the specter of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel on the horizon.
Biggest Loss – Joni Pitkanen
The 30-year old Finn has never recovered from the heel injury he sustained during the truncated 2012/13 season. Tragically it appears his career may be over, robbing Carolina of a dependable 30-40 point scorer along their blue line.
Key Man – Eric Staal/Cam Ward
The simple reality is, if Carolina is to compete again it needs one, or both, of its marquee stars to perform at an elite level again. If they don’t, there’s a strong chance Ron Francis trades them away in order to start a full blown rebuild in Raleigh.
This Seasons Chances…
If Staal and/or Ward do catch fire, Carolina has a shot. But they need to be better on offence, significantly better at home (18-17-6 last year) and overtake their Eastern Conference rivals – almost all of whom have improved over the summer.
The reality is, this may be a team who really could benefit from a completely fresh start – they have a new GM and a new Coach, and if they play their cards right a good shot at a blue chip prospect; perhaps the best since Sidney Crosby.
Posted on September 1, 2014, in Carolina Hurricanes, Hockey, NHL, Season Previews 2014 and tagged Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes, Eric Staal, NHL, Ron Francis, Season Preview. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.